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DAB – Doing It Properly

Legal Writing (CC) Horrgakx @ Flickr

In response to the publication of the interim Digital Britain report, I sent out this twitter

That prompted a small flurry of @nickpiggott replies asking me “so, what does doing it properly mean”?

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that we have the most successful implementation of free-to-air digital radio anywhere in the world. There is no discussion, no set of statistics, no spin that can deny that fact. More people, by number and by percentage of the population, use free-to-air digital radio in the UK than anywhere else. Over 8m cumulative device sales, without a penny of device subsidy or subscription. Planet Rock has almost half the audience of Absolute Radio.

So what we have is not broken, is not a failure and is not dysfunctional.

But – it could be better. We’re only using a fraction of the capabilities of the system, and the implementation was conceived without any reference models, and without any similar paradigms. Which is why it tended to follow the FM model that preceded it by 40 years (25 years in commercial radio).

I tend to work by setting a clear vision of what I want to achieve, and then working out how to get from here to there. If you start from here, and look only at the obstacles, you’d probably give up. (Maybe that’s what’s happening in other countries?). But if you think what you could do, I find it easier to find the swerves and jumps that get you round the problems. Or hope they go away before you get to them.

So here’s my manifesto for doing it properly. My manifesto, not that of my employer. And not representative of all or even part of the radio industry.

Coverage “Turn It Up”

We need higher field strengths for DAB. To really realise its strategic value, and its unique benefits, DAB has to be receivable on the move on a handheld device tucked in someone’s pocket as they go through cities – walking down streets, and walking round buildings. And that means much higher field strengths. Probably about +12dBuV / +14dBuV on what we have now. For normal people, lots lots more.

And we need to do that by using a smaller number of transmitters using much higher ERPs (emitted powers). The whole economic model of “broadcasting” is lost if you work on a network of hundreds of sites to cover the same area covered by 1 FM site now. That’s oversimplifying things, but the general principle is sound. We need to cut the number of DAB sites in use now, and crank up the power of those remaining dramatically.

Why wasn’t this done in the first place? Ah, well, thanks for asking that, because it leads into the next point…

Spectrum Planning “Make It Simpler”

OMFG the UK DAB spectrum plan is complicated. We (the radio industry) made such a rod for our own backs, and loaded ourselves down with so much cost with the current spectrum plan. The current spectrum plan is derived from the original FM plan,and was somewhat influenced by the decision to tie FM licence renewals with commitment to get services on DAB.

We tried to replicate the FM coverage model on DAB. Wherever there was a significant analogue licence that was eligible for renewal, it needed to have an equivalent DAB multiplex area. Problem is, there’s about 100 FM channels in the spectrum 87.5MHz to 108MHz. We tried to duplicate an FM plan which was carefully juggled to fit into 100 FM channels, and pretty much replicate it in 5 DAB channels. Um, can anyone see the problem here, because we didn’t spot it 10 years ago. (Yes, hello pedants – I’m aware that’s an oversimplification, but ride with me on this one).

That created the most fabulous spectrum plan, for which hat tip to the spectrum planners for almost managing to do it. Incredible.

The problem was, it relied heavily on cramming services close together, both in the same areas (adjacent channels) and in adjacent areas (co-channel channels). So the amount of interference from each multiplex had to be virtually negligible outside of its area, which in turn meant using lots of low power transmitters rather than a few bigguns.

My favourite example of this is the London III and Sussex Coast multiplexes, which are both on channel 11B. They are separated by less than 30kms. Can you imagine having two FM stations on the same frequency, with coverage areas only 30kms apart? No. Madness.

The best thing we can do is re-plan to put spectrum where it’s needed, and have bigger mux areas with wider geographic separation. It makes little sense to have Wiltshire split across two different frequencies. (I could tell you why, but you’d be in disbelief).

A re-worked spectrum plan would create less adjacent and co-channel interference, and would support fewer transmission sites at higher powers.

But, you say, how do you fit all those radio stations that used to be on 3 separate muxes onto 1 bigger mux. Well, funny you should ask, because…

DAB+ “Make It More Spectrum Efficient”

Flameproof suits on, mail filters armed, incoming abuse expected.

DAB+ isn’t about making radio sound nicer, because consumers don’t want it, and it doesn’t help anyone. The best use of DAB+ would be to allow a smaller base of infrastructure to support the same number of radio stations. That way, the cost of DAB(+) to the radio industry goes down, we can put much higher powered muxes on-air, and everyone gets a better service.

It’s a big hairy problem though. It keeps me awake at night (not kidding). I would not like even 0.01% of the 30% of UK households who have DAB radios to email me to tell me how they feel about making their DAB radio defunct. It’s not fair, and being fair is an important part of radio IMHO. I don’t have a simple plan on how we would do this, so lets file that under “needs more thinking”.

If we did get to DAB+, we would almost certainly find that we could get the radio stations on-air, and have some spectrum free, and seeing as you’re asking, I’ll tell you what we’d use it for…

Differentiation “Do something exciting”

DAB is insufficiently differentiated from analogue currently. Yes, there’s lots more stations, and its tune by name, and you get some (semi)-useful text. But it’s not the evolution it could have been. DAB has some immensely w00t technologies in it, but the broadcasters have to implement them, and educate listeners about them, BEFORE the radios get built. I take my hat off to the original spec writers, because it’s a joy to converge DAB with IP. Did you know there’s a whole “over the air” HTTP transport layer, that will move seamlessly between IP and DAB? Or a highly efficient way of distributing traffic messages. Even an IP Multi-cast tunnelling option. All there, all waiting to be used.

If we did some of this stuff, I’m sure DAB would get more exciting, and would get into more exciting devices. And, incidentally, become more valuable commercially. Which can only be a good thing. (BTW – have been told what I can talk about on the Touch Radio device, so just need to think and write about it).

Summary

So there’s my “doing it properly” 4-point plan.

  1. Better coverage through higher powers on fewer transmitters
  2. Simpler Spectrum plan with fewer muxes covering bigger areas
  3. More efficient spectrum use with DAB+
  4. Differentiation through data services

Only a few things stopping these changes

  • Infrastructure / transmission contracts which go on for a number of years still
  • Big one-off cost of changing around all the transmitters and masts
  • Complex transition from existing spectrum plan to a new one
  • Replacing ~8m DAB radios with DAB+ ones.
  • Staying alive through the recession.

But, never fear dear readers, because there is light. Digital Britain confirms what the educated know, which is that DAB is fundamentally a great technology, it’s just the current implementation that isn’t brilliant. Consumers just keep loving DAB, and it’s easy to get some data services and some new radio stations back on the air in the current infrastructure (and credit to my team for pulling some clever workarounds out on the data issue). There’s lots of clever people working in radio, who can make this happen.

I will be looking at how Australia get on. They’re starting fresh in May, and they’re going for the 4-point “doing it properly” plan on day 1. They’ll go rushing past us, and set the standard for DAB rollouts from here on. Who knows, maybe it will trigger the second Aussie invasion of radio? Grab the esky, and get the beers cold.

Photo: Legal Writing (CC) Horrgakx @ Flickr

An E-mail to Which?

Query (CC) amortize @ flickr

I wrote this e-mail on Saturday 24th January, to the editor of the Which? website. Which? is the UK’s consumer champion.

Dear Sir / Madam,

I would like to raise an issue with the article on your website entitled “In Store Sales of DAB Radio Could Be Misleading“.

I fear that you have been the victim of a scare campaign, orchestrated by one or two people.

It is true that some stores have had boosters installed to provide a good quality signal to DAB radios on display, but that should be framed within a context that virtually all electrical goods stores provide specific “repeated” signals for Televisions (and in Car Audio shops, for FM Radios too). In particular, you will find that all Digital TVs and Set Top Boxes are connected to cables and boosters from an external antenna. Therefore it seems unreasonable to say that sales of DAB could be misleading; the same is equally true of Digital TV, and I’m sure you will remember that there were issues with this a few years ago.

Electrical retailers tend to be based in metal-skinned buildings, creating what’s known as a Faraday Cage effect – which cuts off all radio and tv signals. It is therefore a necessity to bring signals in through repeaters for any radio or TV device to work at all.

The Radio Industry provides a very reliable “postcode checker” for coverage, at www.getdigitalradio.com – which you have failed to mention, presumably because the person or people who “tipped you off” about this story didn’t see fit to tell you the whole story. In addition, I am not aware of any retailer or manufacturer who has refused to take a return (of a properly boxed device) if the consumer subsequently finds they have inadequate reception.

I am disappointed that you don’t seem to have checked these facts with anyone from the industry representative bodies, and may I suggest that you contact (-) at the DRDB on (-) to get a more balanced view. I look forward to seeing an amendment to the article imminently.

Regards

Nick Piggott

I’ll leave you to find the offending blog article for yourselves, as they aren’t worthy of linking to.

Update – 26th January

The Which? website has been updated today to include a response from the DRDB, which does now include reference to the postcode checker, and explains why it is that some retailers need to have repeaters to get signals into the building. Well done Which? for updating so promptly.

Photo: Query (CC) Amortize @ flickr

The Radio Festival 2008

Where are we going again?

Radio Festival – the three days where the entire UK radio industry gathers to discuss the future of the radio industry, address the topics of the day, and indulge in the unprecedented transfer of value from wallets to bars. (Although this year’s free bars have been widely praised).

So where and how did Digital feature in this celebration of radio, and what did Lesley Douglas (Controller, BBC Radio 2) say that was the most insightful and valuable contribution of the whole event?

Twelve years ago, DAB warranted a token primer session in Techcon. (“Here is a picture of a mul-ti-plex. You can transmit many stations on one mul-ti-plex. It uses au-dio en-cod-ing called Emm-Peg Two”). I drove people around Birmingham in a Black Thunder demonstrating a DAB radio the size of a small beer fridge.

This year, ITIS and Fraunhofer presented useful and interesting applications for DAB. ITIS explained the many varied uses of TPEG, including the very topical FPI (Fuel Pricing Information) service (complete with early 2008 diagrams with references to sub £1/litre fuel – how we sniggered). If GPS mapping is the next big thing in terms of mobile technologies, then DAB allows those maps to be populated with large amounts of really useful real-time data. My hunch is that POI (Points of Interest) will itself become a Point of Significantly Valuable Commercial Interest to commercial radio stations (can I register the acronym POSVCI? No?). Fraunhofer demo’ed their Journaline applications, which is a lightweight browseable text service, something like a RSS Reader but delivered over DAB. Neat, but I wonder if it’s aiming at a class of radio (simple text display) that the radio industry is trying to get beyond now?

Festival proper started on Tuesday, with brilliantly produced an fabulously creative session on the Digital Radio Working Group (producer, Nick Piggott, GCap Media plc). Ahem. Look, it was never going to wow people when the report had already been out a week. The discussion (when it finally got going – the crowd took time to warm up this year) focused a lot on in-car receivers, and I felt that Peter Davies got away rather too easily with side-stepping the question about what to do about the punitively high transmission costs being suffered by commercial broadcasters at the moment. There also wasn’t enough discussion about coverage strengthening. But then, it was the first session, and the bar had been open the night before.

There was the obligatory session on music rights, where PPL and PRS/MCPS explain that they’re really only trying to help, but then get nailed (quite rightly) by everyone who asks a question from the crowd, and big kudos to Jay Crawford for exposing the levels of desperation to claw money from people to such an extent that they set up call centres to do mass enforcements of “workplace” music licences. A quick conversation with the landlord of the local hostelry confirmed that he’d been strong-armed into getting a licence because his chef occasionally has the radio on in the kitchen. Madness, from the people who brought you “let’s sue 12 year olds”.

But the really interesting thing about Festival now is that Digital crops up everywhere. It’s just part of life. (I don’t think it got mentioned in Matthew Bannister’s amusing session on compliance, made even more hysterical by Muff Murfin using at least three words from the seriously banned list unaware that two school kids had been ushered into the hall behind him for the next session).

On Wednesday, we had a session on visualising radio, which just served to highlight the commonality of the vision for radio in the future. I was on the panel next to Ben Chapman (Radio 1), and the fact is that we pretty much agree. Ben’s got different ideas on what his visuals will be, and in that respect it’s the very embodiment of “agree on technology, compete on content”. Radio is going to visualise, so the race is on to see who does it first, and who does it best (clearly, GCap will do both). There were some slightly random contributions from Westwood about his YouTube successes. (I wonder if he’s called that because of Westwood Hill, Sydenham, SE26). Chris North of Wise Buddah reminded us (as only an agent can) that artistes have finite time, so we need to bear that in mind when we come up with endless digital extensions to work on.

However, it was Lesley Douglas who really contributed significantly to the digital debate this year, in the dying moments of the festival. In a session where a panel of key industry people (Andrew Harrison, Tony Moretta, Lesley Douglas) take questions from the audience, one question prompted the discussion “has the UK picked an out of date digital technology?”. The conclusion, as usual, is no – when you properly consider all the elements that lead to success, there’s no better choice than DAB/Eureka 147. But Lesley closed the panel by saying something along the lines of:

I hope that this is the last year we have to discuss the technology, and that next year we’ll be talking much more about the content of digital radio, which is what matters far more to listeners.

I couldn’t agree more.

Too much technology

YouFM by NickPiggott@flickr

This week I was lucky enough to meet up with my colleagues and peers in the German commercial radio industry, and spend a day at a seminar organised by VPRT in Berlin. It gave me an insight into their world, and their situation, which I’ve been lacking for a long time. It also made me realise that they’re being let down by some technologists.

DAB Digital Radio has been dominated by public service broadcasters, and the membership of WorldDMB is testament to that fact. Of the hundreds of members of WorldDMB, only 3 commercial radio companies are represented; GCap Media (UK), Channel 4 Radio (UK) and Commercial Radio Australia. The UK’s approach of co-operation between the public and commercial sectors has been an exceptional undertaking. Only recently have commercial broadcasters begun to engage with DAB, visibly in Switzerland, France, Australia, Germany, and the mood is changing elsewhere.

What I’ve learnt in my two days with my German colleagues is that they’re asking very good questions, and indeed probably more informed and relevant questions than we did when we kicked off DAB in the mid-90’s. There are lots of questions that need answers, and when those answers have been gathered and assessed, then there will be a decision on a commitment to Digital Radio.

Not unsurprisingly, quite a lot of their questions are about making the right technology choices, and this is where I believe they’re being let down by some technologists.

Technologists love to create technology. There is always a better solution to a problem, a better framework to work within, a new concept, a new library. COMET, XMPP, Ruby on Rails, Java – technologists thrive and survive on new ideas and new, cleverer, solutions to problems. German technologists are no exception, and their innovations have been exceptional – DAB, MP3, RDS – all have significant input from German technologists, and my personal experience is that they have some incredibly agile and intelligent technologists. I would trust my life with some of the guys at Fraunhofer.

But sometimes technologists’ ability to create endless solutions means uncertainty and instability. And sometimes technologists create problems in order to create solutions to justify their existence.

One of the difficulties I see my German colleagues grappling with is whether they are using the right technology for Digital Radio. Should it be DAB? Or DAB+? Or “DMB Audio”? Or DAB-IPDC? Or DXB? Or IBOC? Or…..? Nobody wants to make the wrong decision, and buy into an out of date technology. And whenever it looks like the number of choices is narrowing, a technologist pops up and throws another suggestion in the ring. And, of course, they all claim to offer the ultimate, most future proof, elegant, scalable and cheapest solution.

Of course, I can help a bit. Don’t use DAB. It’s out of date. But if the UK had hung on in 1998 waiting for a “better” technology, we’d never have got on-air, never sold 7m+ receivers, and never made a success of DAB. And at least we have a relatively obvious migration path to DAB+.

Indeed, it analogous with buying a computer. Just accept that whatever you buy will be superceded in 6 months (or indeed, may already be superceded). If you keep waiting, you’ll never buy a computer and you’ll still be scratching on stone tablets when everyone else is sending e-mail and chatting on Facebook.

It’s a shame that some technologists can’t be a bit more market aware, and look beyond their ability to cook up new ideas and bring a bit more balanced assessment. It’s not providing a solution to keep creating new solutions. Answer more questions, provide more data. Which solution is most elegant? Most spectrum efficient? Most backwards compatible? Most closely matches the requirements list? (Is the requirements list reasonable?). How much will devices cost? Who will be building them? When will they be available? And of course, who else is using this technology set?

I hope the technology issue in Germany can be closed down fairly soon. They’re definitely suffering from too much technology, and it’s not helping. If they can slim down the candidates against a list of reasonable requirements, say “no” to people trying to bounce new/unproven solutions onto them, and make a technology choice, it will tick another box on the check-list marked “Things To Do To Launch Digital Radio”.

I also caught up with Sebastian Kett and Michael Reichert from SWR, home of the rather marvellous DasDing. A blog on what they’re up to will follow….